Carol Mack speech to ACF conference: Community, identity and belonging

Thursday 7 October 2021


I want to start by paying tribute to your work over the last twelve months.

When we met online this time last year at our annual conference, we hoped that the worst of the pandemic was behind us and we could look ahead and focus on the route to recovery. 

But Covid had other ideas – there was another lockdown and continued misery for many. Through all this, foundation trustees and staff have continued to step up in challenging circumstances:

  • to be responsive and flexible 
  • to get your grants out
  • to support your partners and their staff and volunteers

Through the support from foundations - charities and community groups have been at the heart of the response to Covid –

  • providing food, going digital, keeping the arts alive, and advocating for those whose voices might otherwise not be heard.

All of you – whether involved with the emergency response or not – have had to find new ways of working, and to think through the implications of covid for the causes you support and care about.

So thank you for the way you have stepped up to the plate these past many months, for your agility, flexibility and sheer hard work – it has been greatly needed.

As we reflect back on the past eighteen months, one thing the pandemic has made crystal clear is the extent of inequality, both in our country and globally. While we’ve all been affected, Covid has impacted most severely on older people, disabled people, black and minority communities and people living in our most deprived areas.

While the UK seems to be returning to some kind of normality on the back of the vaccine rollout, this is not the case around the world. In the words of Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust – and I quote:

“The gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ widens every day. Globally, a staggering 80 per cent of vaccines have been given in high- and upper-middle-income countries, and just 0.4 per cent in low-income countries. This is less about limited supply, and more about the vastly unequal distribution of it.” 

Here at home, a growing consciousness of inequality is accompanied by a fear that there is not enough to go round. As the UK economy has only grown slowly and wages have stagnated – and with pressures on public and voluntary sector spending – it can feel like different groups in society are competing much more for the available assets and resources and this can mean reinforcing competing identities rather than looking at what we have in common. Some are calling this ‘identity politics’ or the ‘culture wars’.

Identity, belonging and community

So examining identity, community and belonging together through this conference felt very timely. In choosing this theme we wanted to celebrate the work that foundations are doing, and also to acknowledge that this space is becoming increasingly controversial. As a colleague said recently – it feels like everything is political - even breathing.

For most people identity is something that is very positive for them – a force for good. 

At a very basic human level, identity is the foundation for being part of a community and to feel you belong.

People identify with their neighbourhood, their village, their town and want to look after it and improve it. 

They want to feel good when they tell someone where they live.

They are proud of the interests they share in common with others.

And proud of their nationality.

In my case, if I come across someone who supports Derby County, I instinctively warm to them – there’s an instant connection with the city where I grew up. And as an Englishwoman, married to a proud Welshman, I’m very conscious of the passion and camaraderie that nationality can release – particularly when Wales are playing England at rugby – or indeed any sort of sport at all.

As I’ve said, identity and belonging are central to membership of communities. And there is a wealth of research that identifies the benefits from being part of a community. 

People who have close friends and confidantes, friendly neighbours and supportive co-workers are far less likely to experience loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping. And they’re more likely to report higher levels of well-being.  

The networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular community, and which enable it to function effectively, is often called social capital. And key to building this is civil society, frequently supported by foundations.

There are some great examples of ACF members supporting this work. 

  • Power to Change have a whole library of case studies showing how local community businesses are often places and spaces where everyone belongs 
  • And yesterday in a workshop at this conference the Architectural Heritage Fund looked at the role of heritage development trusts in adapting redundant historic buildings and giving them new life – delivering essential community services and promoting civic pride 

And we’ve seen our foundation community work together and collaborate as never before, as part of the response to Covid.

But there is also what’s been called the dark side of social capital. Of identities and networks that can exclude people. Of communities where power and agency are not equal. 

Yesterday, we heard from Fazilet Hadi of Disability Rights UK about the We Belong campaign. Its central message is that disabled people belong in the workplace, in neighbourhoods, in education, on public transport, in cinemas and in parks. That a campaign like this was needed is a stark reminder of the unequal starting point for many of us.

It’s good that many foundations are asking themselves; how can we be certain that our work is not exclusionary? 

How do we need to change? 

Foundations are working with groups like the Funders for Race Equality Alliance to examine their own data to see who they fund.  Evidence from a range of sources suggests that organisations led by Black and minority communities are less likely to apply for funding; are less likely to be successful in getting a grant if they do apply; and if they do get a grant are awarded less money.

I do believe that this is starting to change. The last year has seen new programmes from several funders to tackle racial inequality and work in partnership with organisations led by and supporting Black and minority communities. 

And I’m really pleased that this morning GiveOut will be running a breakout session. They’ll be pulling out lessons learned from their work building an international LGBTQI 
community foundation, with 30 organisations funded across different countries, working in often very challenging situations. 

Levelling up

I want now to turn to the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. Why? 

Well, while foundations rightly cherish their independence, in aggregate our funding is small scale compared to the resources that the state can bring to bear, so knowing what government is trying to do is helpful if we want to maximise the impact of our precious resources. 

And Levelling Up is very relevant to what we’re speaking about today – because it is the government agenda for tackling inequalities by spreading opportunity more evenly across the country. As we all know, tackling inequalities between areas is much needed. A boy born in one of the least deprived parts of the country can expect to live almost a decade longer than boys born into the most deprived areas. 

It should be clear to anyone that community and social capital must be at the heart of levelling up. Foundations know this – foundations have been seeking to level up communities for as long as they have been around. 

But New Philanthropy Capital estimate that almost 90% of the UK government’s levelling up funding streams will go on physical infrastructure – not people or communities.  

I hope that the new Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities under Michael Gove will shift that emphasis and support the social infrastructure that communities need.

And it is also vitally important to consider levelling up within communities not just between them. 

Communities of place need to be inclusive to everyone who lives there. Tackling regional inequality needs to go hand in hand with tackling racism, homophobia and all of the other ways human beings have found to exclude others, so that everyone is given an equal chance in life. And key to tackling inequalities in the future will be addressing the climate crisis. Just as with Covid, the impact of climate change is unequally distributed and will serve to exacerbate existing inequalities. 

With all this in mind, I believe foundations should be at the heart of levelling up in its broadest sense. At their best, foundations are the most transparent and intentional way of transforming private wealth into public benefit. What is that, if not levelling up? And you can do this really well. 

As foundations you can work independently of frantic political time scales. 

You can respond to immediate need and take the long view; and you can preserve progress that has been achieved as well as supporting innovation.

As social investors foundations can offer risk capital – funding interventions where the markets fear to tread – as well as patient capital, because you are in it for the long haul and know just how difficult it can be to get some things off the ground.

In short, you can deploy flexible approaches that few other funders and few other investors can take. 

So I am definitely not saying that foundations should cast aside their independence and seek to ape the state. But foundations can choose to complement public spending and work in partnership with those that the public sector might otherwise neglect

Foundations are already asking themselves hard questions, that get to the heart of levelling up.

How can we provide a platform for those whose experiences and perspectives would not otherwise be heard? 

How can we go beyond addressing inequalities and play a part in redistributing power and resources? 

Foundations and DEI

Foundations are also – and rightly – looking at their own governance, processes and history to see how they can be more inclusive and work towards more equitable outcomes.

A great example of this is the Just Foundations initiative  – a group of foundation directors who have come together to focus on their role as leaders in promoting racial justice within their foundations and more broadly, challenging and supporting each other in equal measure. 

Many of you have told us that you are finding ACF’s Stronger Foundations programme to be helpful here.  It looks at a range of different aspects of foundation practice and sets out what excellence looks like, as defined by you our members. 

The first Stronger Foundations report  we published – there’ve been seven - and the one that has attracted most interest from members focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion. It represents what we have described as ambitious practice. But I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is more than just ambitious practice – it’s necessary practice for foundations. 

There is a strong moral case for this. Foundations – as civic actors with substantial independence and assets – are extremely well-placed to play a role in removing barriers and increasing access for communities that have been historically marginalised or underrepresented. 

To make the type of progress that is needed requires us all to recognise how our actions as individuals and foundations are enmeshed in wider society. A society, which is riven with many forms of inequality, as well as personal, institutional and structural discrimination – including racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia. Not to mention religious and class-based discrimination.

Alongside the moral case, there is the case related to impact and mission. The existence of racism and other discriminatory and harmful practices and cultures limits the ability of foundations to support the causes, people and communities that you care about. 

And there is also a strong business case. Including diverse perspectives and experiences are critical for foundations to reach their full potential. 

Taking these three cases together – the moral case, the impact case and the business case – foundations who are more diverse, more inclusive and working towards more equitable opportunities and outcomes will be confident about their role in society and well placed to welcome scrutiny. 

Culture wars

 Which brings me to my concluding thoughts – on how foundations can navigate this space and continue to do this work confidently - given the context of the rise in identity politics, the so-called culture wars and the increased scrutiny this brings. 

This can be difficult. I know that. 

Foundations – with serious, thoughtful approaches to reviewing their history and past links to slavery – are getting caught up in the crossfire and beaten up in the media.  

But a guiding light through the media storm, and what is most important through all of this, is your own mission as a foundation, and staying true to that. You are best placed to know what is right for you – not a journalist fishing for a controversial story nor a politician hoping to be noticed. 

And being true to your mission means being bold.  It means being robust. And it means being clear.

And it also means keeping good records of your decisions – as some of you know,  I once worked at the Charity Commission. The sure way to ensure the Commission stays on your side is to document properly what you do and why and relate everything back to your charitable objectives.

Finally, I am no comms expert, but I do think part of the answer to navigating this contested territory is to speak in way that resonates with people across society.

To speak in words that everyone can understand rather than the jargon we slip into as organisations.  

To recognise where people are starting from, rather than where you want them to be.

And to make clear it’s not an “either/or” when it comes to tackling regional and social inequalities compared to racism and homophobia, but an “and also”. 

ACF is here to help you. 

We don’t have all the answers. 

But we will always champion you; help you to raise your eyes to what foundations at their best can do, and support you because we know the good that comes from the work you do and how important it is for the society we live in.

Over the past year foundations have achieved an immense amount – you have contributed significantly to the nation’s response to the biggest peacetime challenge in a generation. And this has been recognised at the highest levels of government. 

From where I sit, as chief executive of your membership association, I have seen our community of foundations come together like never before, to support each other, share ideas and collaborate in new ways. Your dedication, creativity, generosity and sense of purpose is just breathtaking.

Thank you for being here today and for being part of the ACF community. Together we truly are more than the sum of our parts.